Can we save our English from going down the drain?

The Federal Government is not doing enough to help our students become more proficient in English. Fa Abdul of Free Malaysia Today shares a major concern:


I was at a deli in a mall yesterday when I overheard a mat salleh couple asking the manager there for directions.

“I think better you do like this. You go up here this way, then you walk that side, after that when you come to first floor, you go straight that side and you can see people waiting for taxi another side. You queue, when taxi come, you can show taxi driver and he can take you.”

As amusing as it was, I found it equally embarrassing.

In my line of work, I come across many professionals who face difficulties conversing in English, just like the manager of the deli.

Like the time I was doing a documentary project on autism and the specialist who we planned to interview confided in me that she had trouble answering in English. I told her it was perfectly fine if she chose to speak in Malay. She declined. To solve the problem, she wrote her answers in Malay and I translated them for her. Half an hour before shooting, she sat in a corner and memorised everything word for word.

Most of us believe many of those with a weak command of English come from rural areas or are academically backward. We are so wrong.

Last week, my daughter sat for her English proficiency test at matriculation level. Although she passed, most of her course mates did not and were forced to attend Level 1 and 2 English (there are 7 levels).

I find it absolutely shocking that these students, the cream of the crop with 8As or 10As for SPM, are so weak in a language they learned since kindergarten at the age of 5. Seriously, if they had to take Level 1 English, what were they learning in the past 10 years? And how did they manage to score an A for SPM English?

Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin made a statement a few days ago that the government had no plans to revert the medium of instruction in national schools from Bahasa Malaysia to English.

According to him, the problem with our student’s lack of proficiency in English is being addressed and teachers have been sent for extra training to master the language.

Whoah, wait a minute. Is the minister telling us that all this while the teachers we entrusted our children to, lacked the proper skills to teach in English? Why then were they hired to teach English in the first place?

And if the problem we face with English proficiency can easily be tackled by sending teachers for training, why did we not do that years ago?

In 2012 there was talk of importing teachers from India to fill the need for good, reliable English educators. In fact even before 2012, our command of English was going down the drain. Why wasn’t anything done back then?

We currently have more than five million students in our public schools. Who is teaching them English while the current batch of teachers are getting a boost in their language skills? Having raised two kids who studied in public schools, I believe the answers lie between ‘no one’ and ‘the same teachers who needed a lesson in English’.

I can’t help but feel amused at how an Education Minister can look at a very alarming state of deterioration of our education system in a very light manner. What is even more mind boggling is that he believes making English a compulsory subject to pass at SPM level is going to miraculously solve all our problems.

What really upsets me is the fact that no matter what we say, there is no way out of this mess. Our education system is in the hands of the Federal Government. If the government is adamant about retaining Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction, there is nothing we can do about it.

However, I hope the Education Ministry realises a lot more can be done if they genuinely want to improve the standard of English in our schools.

May I suggest the following?

Pick two days a week as English speaking days. Make it compulsory for everyone within the school environment to only converse in English.

Apart from Monday assemblies which are conducted in Bahasa Malaysia, all other assemblies should be conducted in English. This would provide ongoing training for the teachers too.

Introduce an Oral English Proficiency Programme as an additional subject. Encourage students to speak up, form their own opinions and discuss topics of interest.

Hire retired English teachers on a contractual basis to conduct these Oral English Proficiency classes.

I believe it is time our Education Ministry understands that emphasising our national language doesn’t mean that the English language should be flushed down the drain. Clearly we wouldn’t want this to be a case of ‘menang sorak kampung tergadai’ (winning the battle but losing the war), do we Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin?